By Leah Davies
Dilip Kulung, a former porter who worked on Nepal’s Everest trail 10 years ago, used to carry loads of up to 90kg to help hikers make the climb to the infamous Base Camp.
Like many of his friends, Dilip has lived a story of hardship and disadvantage in an attempt to make a living and support his family, who are precariously perched on the mountainsides of the Hongu Valley where the villages of Chheskam, Sotang, Bung and Gudel stand.
Today, Dilip advocates for his community, who have been living in the shadow of the world’s highest peak–overlooked, under-appreciated and subjected to an industry that has exploited their cheap labour and desperation since the first Base Camp expedition took place in 1921.
While there are countless tales telling of conquest over the world’s tallest mountain, the stories of those who make it possible for 30,000 tourists to visit the region each year are more often than not forgotten.
Dilip recalls the very first trip he made to Base Camp at age 15 alongside his father and neighbour.
“At the time, there were no guesthouses or dormitory rooms for porters so instead, we would find shelter in caves from the snow, rain and blizzards. On this particular trip, we were stranded for three days in a cave in Thukla, about five kilometers southwest of Base Camp because of the relentless snow. My father was so worried, unsure if we would ever return home. This was the first time I had ever left our family home in Chheskam.”
When Dilip first joined his father as a porter, he earned 250NPR, which is equivalent to AUD$3 a day. Today, a porter typically earns AUD$12 a day for fairing torrential and sometimes fatal conditions.
“It’s not enough to cover the cost of logistics during the trek and it’s very hard to save money for our families. Unexpected deadly accidents occur regularly. Some trekking companies do not provide porters with appropriate equipment like hiking shoes, wind-proof jackets, trousers and gloves. As a result, porters suffer from acute altitude sickness, frost bite and tragic injuries if the snow gives way on a steep pass. Others lose limbs or an organ. It’s also common for trekking companies to refuse to pay a fair compensation to porters and their families for their loss.”
Despite reports suggesting that foreign climbing companies can earn up to 10 times as much as the Kulung people, Dilip explained this is actually permitted and perpetuated by local climbing groups.
“It is true, foreign travel companies run their business in Nepal in close cooperation with our local trekking companies, but it is not their fault for this price discrepancy. This is the responsibility of our local companies and our government, which have historically under-valued and mistreated the hardworking and dedicated Kulung porters.”
Dilip explained: “It is my wish that all Everest tourism workers be treated equally and fairly. Our wages should be increased so that all Everest workers can save a little money for their families and be able to school their children.”
“Despite our frustrations though, we continue to smile. It’s the Kulung way.”
Dilip describes his people as honest, brave, supportive and responsible.
“We are the source and symbol of humanity, as legend will tell you. We are the indigenous people of our lands, but the Nepalese government denies our origins and our deep connection to this part of the earth. Every mountain, river, tree, cave, snowflake and lake is connected to our spiritual and religious faith, yet we are unrecognised by law, with no support from the government to help preserve and promote our distinct cultural heritage.”
“We have a centuries-long unbroken relationship with this sacred land of ours, and despite the hardship, every trekking season, twice a year, more than 8,000 Kulung travel to the Everest trail, seeking work as porters, cooks, store hands and housekeepers.”
“We smile and greet trekkers with ‘Namaste,’ and if you are experiencing problems in our snowy world, we help. We have saved the lives of hundreds of foreign tourists. We may be poor by wealth, but we are very rich in humanity.”
I am working with Australian filmmakers on a crowdfunding campaign to shoot the documentary Carrying Everest, a film about the Kulung people. Despite being one of Nepal’s most marginalised communities, they are also one of the most courageous and gifted. Carrying Everest will be their story, and the filmmakers are hoping a generous public will help make their voices heard.
Despite the tragedy of the earthquake in Nepal earlier this year and the historic difficulties faced in Mahakulung, stories of courage, dreams and community are yet to be told. “Carrying Everest is a film about heroic exploits–the power of the heart, the passion for life and noble people striving to build a better life,” explains Director Hallam Drury. “Despite the earthquake, despite the frustrating circumstances and inequality, there are also inspiring stories of human agency. We want to shine a light on their strength and resilience, not just the adversity they face.”
We are hoping to raise at least AUD$3,000. The funding will not only assist with the logistics of the trip, but will directly contribute to the employment and livelihoods of the Kulung. The crew will be staying in local teahouses (guesthouses), hiring local porters and guides at fair wages and purchasing meals and supplies in local villages, which in turn, will provide an income and much-needed investment for these communities.
“Our hearts are big. It is the Kulung way. We are the pillar of the Everest trekking industry,” added Dilip.
Leah Davies is a purpose-filled writer, human rights activist and coach for budding wordsmiths, who is driven to cultivate change through our stories. Her conscious communications consultancy Paper Planes Connect is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness. Using her experience as a journalist and international development worker, she supports the socially conscious to platform their voice and create change, both big and small.
Featured image shows a member of Nepal’s Kulung ethnic group. Photo by Heema Rai.